ORLANDO, Fla. – Five months into our new, novel coronavirus world, sports are still struggling with their own significance, perhaps nowhere more than in the debates around college football which erupted this weekend. Amid questions of handling how to return to the field, top conferences around the NCAA landscape are facing an unprecedented level of organization from its teams’ players. For years, their status as amateurs was one of sports’ most lucrative oxymorons. COVID-19’s risks and the activity around the nation’s Black Lives Matter movement has colleges’ athletic money-makers asking for evened scales.
Other sports have dealt with their own return-to-play issues. For those in the National Women’s Soccer League, securing full pay for all players, regardless of whether they participated in the league’s NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, was a principle condition. For the National Basketball Association’s men’s and women’s leagues (the NBA and WNBA), being able to use their bubble platforms to amplify social justice issues proved a must. Ultimately, each league reached a level of comfort with their balance on those issues, as well as many others. Each league found a way to move forward.
Major League Soccer has done the same, doing so with social justice issues and the voices of their Black players at the forefront during the league’s MLS is Back Tournament. And of course, the health considerations shouldn’t be overlooked. MLS and its players executed a bubble which prevented community spread despite multiple teams arriving in Orlando with positive COVID cases. “We learned a lot in the bubble,” commissioner Don Garber said this weekend, referencing the league’s experience with testing protocols, masks and distancing norms when discussing MLS’ plans to resume its regular season later this month.
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As with all sports, soccer’s on-field stories have had to strike a balance with what’s going on in the broader world, something that muddles the tournament’s significance. For many sports, regular seasons combine with a competition’s history to establish context. But MLS’ regular season had to pause, and with no history behind MLS is Back, it’s difficult to know what the tournament title means.
“We haven’t played in a long time,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said, highlighting the strange nature of MLS is Back two days before his team’s first kickoff on July 13. “Usually, it’s preseason when you start playing matches to see how the team reacts to opposition. It feels like that way, but … in a very important game in this competition.”
MLS seemed to know it needed a new approach with its impromptu tournament, part of the reason why MIB’s format group-stage games counted toward the regular season. The league also announced a new pool of prize money, $1.1 million, and, whereas normal seasons only award Concacaf Champions League spots based on playoff, regular-season, and U.S. Open Cup results, victory in the final at the MLS is Back Tournament comes with a ticket into that next competition. WIth FIFA’s Club World Cup expanding to 24 teams in 2021, that passage comes with more potential than ever before.
“[Champions League] is a type of tournament you always want to be in,” Timbers captain Diego Valeri said after his team’s semifinal victory over Philadelphia. “It’s not easy to get in. It takes a long time [to qualify through] a regular season, and now, we have one game to go. Besides winning the tournament, it’s extra motivation for me, personally. I love that kind of international competition.”
It’s a type of love that is still developing around Major League Soccer’s culture, but as the Timbers have become increasingly reliant on South American talent, they’ve amassed players who look at Copa Libertadores as a staple, or see UEFA Champions League as part of their career goals. Concacaf may still be figuring out how to make its Champions League work, but for so many Timbers, international competition carries huge weight.
“[Champions League is] important for everyone, including the younger players who can have that experience,” Timbers midfielder Sebastián Blanco explained. “And then there’s what the competition leads to: the chance to win it. After that you get closer to competing against even bigger clubs. That’s a great motivation."
Still, with the next Concacaf Champions League six months away, Portland’s more immediate concern may be their normal lives. At the beginning of June, when the idea of an MLS is Back Tournament went from plan to probable, each club’s players began talking to each other, working through the sacrifices that would have to be made. Quickly, those conversations expanded, brought coaches and staff back in, and resulted in each team’s approach to Florida. For Orlando City – Portland's opponent in the tournament final on Tuesday (5:30pm PT, ESPN) – they’d be leaving their homes, relocating to a Disney World resort, and spending up to six weeks away from their families. For the Timbers, it meant the same, just with 3,000 miles’ distance added on.
On Wednesday, as each team returns home, the reality of what they gave up will resurface. Their sacrifice becomes informed by the previous night’s result. For one team, they’ll return to their homes and families having claimed everything possible from the MLS is Back experience. For the other, they’ll have come up 90 minutes short.
“We came here with one goal, and that’s to lift the trophy at the end of the tournament,” Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse said after the team’s semifinal triumph. “Now, we’re one game away. All the work we put in and all the sacrifice that we’ve put in is all starting to pay off.”
Tuesday’s game is about making that sacrifice count. It’s about crafting a memory, and enjoying its fruits. With a win, the price players paid becomes a trophy, a purse, and a Champions League berth as a reward. It becomes something that’s made the trip worthwhile.
The Portland Timbers face Orlando City SC on Tuesday in the MLS is Back Tournament Final presented by Wells Fargo at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (5:30pm PT, ESPN).